Personally, I found the service in the National Cathedral much more powerful and moving then I expected. This may have partly been do to a conversation with a peace activist friend the week before who said he felt the National Cathedral was unredeemable because of its central in the civil religious ceremonies of our country in which God’s will is so often equated with America’s will.
So as I was sitting waiting for the service to begin, I was asking whether any rituals or service in this space could be holy given its history of nationalism and militarism. As the service started with the procession, I was almost immediately drawn into the ritual. As a low church Christian, I haven’t usually been able to connect with the priest, choir and cross carried by acolytes as they walk up the center aisle. But this time was different. Perhaps it was because the procession included nearly 30 leaders from many different denominations. Perhaps it was because I felt so deeply that the service was a witness to the way of Christ. Regardless, I was aware that my misgivings about the symbolism of meeting in the National Cathedral were replaced by excitement at the opportunity to redeem (if not exorcise) the space with 3000 voices standing together.
My initial feelings were reinforced when the Dean of the Cathedral warmly welcomed us and pointed out that hosting prophetic Christian witness to the nation’s government was also a role of the Cathedral, although one less publicized. When I recounted this to an Episcopalian friend, he confirmed that this was a significant statement coming from an Episcopal leader. I for one, felt sincerely welcomed to the space.
The service itself consisted of three main sections, each with a brief song, two or three readings and a witness, brought by a pastor or leader from a different Christian denomination. The first section was entitled “War – Lament” and the readings were the reflections of a U.S. Soldier, an excerpt from the diary of a young Iraqi and a woman in Baghdad. The witness was brought by Celeste Zappala, mother of Sherwood Baker of Philadelphia who was killed in Iraq on April 26th, 2004. She helped found Gold Star Families for Peace. She read a poem about the moment when a military officer came to the door to tell her that her son had been killed.
The second section was called “The Cross” and included a reading from the testimony of an Abu Ghraib detainee who told about having electrodes attached to his testicles and his interrogators yelling at him and threatening to turn them on. The witness was from Reverend Doctor Raphael G. Warnock, the head preacher from Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached. Dr. Warnock preached a brief, rousing sermon in classic charismatic style. His dynamic address was interrupted multiple times by applause and a standing ovation or two. He said that America it is not a question of whether or not the United States loses the war, but whether we lose our soul. He also reminded us of MLK’s analysis of the unholy trinity of poverty, racism and war. It was an inspiring call to repentance as a nation.
Third section was hope and it featured a reading from Sheila Provencher of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq read by Carol Rose, CPT co-director. Sheila wrote about the way she found hope in her interaction with a child in the midst of apathy and frustration. You can read the piece yourself here: “The perspective of love”. The witness in this section was delivered by Reverend Doctor Bernice Powell Jackson, United Church of Christ minister who served as the World Council of Church North American director. I found her particularly inspiring because she told us that hope must be rooted in action and a commitment to public struggle. Her framing of our witness as an act of hope helped frame the later march as a Christian witness different from many past marches I’ve attended.
The service was concluded by a response and a call to action in which Jim Wallis spoke to us. He rose to the occasion and built on Powell’s framing of the march we were about to take through the cold, drizzling DC streets. He said that our march was not an act of protest, but an act of faith. “Politics is not likely to save us,” he said, “It will take faith to end this war.” As people of faith he called us mobilize to change the climate of fear that has allowed the Bush administration to carry out its policies with impunity. With a rising voice he called on us to “cast out the fear” in the way that Jesus taught us, with perfect love.
For me, Wallis’s best moment was when he reminded us that our war in Iraq has led to many in the world associating America’s imperial designs with evangelical Christianity. Having lived in London, England for two and a half years, this resonated with me strongly. Wallis invited us to take advantage of our opportunity there in the national cathedral to say as one body that “America is not the hope and light of the earth, Jesus is.” This may seem like an obvious statement, but for those of us who have spent significant time abroad, is a deeply important statement to make. And hearing it said so strongly in the National Cathedral was very important to me.
Taken as a whole, the service functioned almost as an exorcism of the space that has so often been used by our leaders to rally the nation behind their policies with religious language and symbols. Three days after the Septebmer 11 attacks, George Bush sowed the seeds of war in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a service on the National Day of Prayer and Rememberance. How fitting to be able to reclaim the space six years later for an service of hope and witness against those wars.
The rest of the evening with the march to and around the White House was also quite powerful. For more, I’d recommend the account account (with photos) by Dave Landis. The photo above is by him.